The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882): Brief Overview

"The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first significant law that restricted immigration
into the United States of an ethnic working group."

The history of immigration to the United States and the contribution of immigrants and successive generations of American-born ethnic groups are important and essential factors in the history of the United States and the study of American social, economic, political, and cultural life.  Between 1870 and 1900, for example, nearly 12 million immigrants arrived in the United States for a range of economic, political, and social reasons.  During the 1870s and 1880s, the majority came mainly from Northern Europe (Germany, Ireland, and England), followed by a mass immigration from Southern Europe between 1880-1920’s.  For example, during the period of 1880-1924 over 4 million Italians (mostly from Southern Italy) alone emigrated from Italy to the U.S.  Also, a massive wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in the U.S., mainly on the West coast.  By 1870, the Chinese were 8.6 % of the total population of California and constituted 25% of the labor force.  Chinese immigrants arrived on U.S. shores between the start of the California gold rush in 1849 and 1882, until the U.S. Congress enacted federal law in 1882 designed to prevent Chinese immigrants from entering or remaining in the U.S.

In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by the U.S.Congress and signed by President Chester A. Arthur.  The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first significant law that restricted immigration into the United States of an ethnic working group.  It also was the first in a series of legislative, executive, and judicial acts by the U.S. Government in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries setting official immigration policies that many historians, scholars, and average citizens consider as racist.  The Chinese Exclusion Act was followed by official U.S. government policy that excluded or limited by quota immigration by Japanese, Filipinos, and the whole range of peoples from Asian nations.  After decades of massive immigration into the U.S. by Italians, Poles, Hungarians, and a wide range of European- based national, religious, and ethnic groups, the National Origins Act of 1924 enacted discriminatory quota restrictions against European immigrants to America.  Immigration quotas based on ethnicity and race were not “officially” abolished until the revision of U.S. immigration statutes in 1965.  Immigration issues and immigration laws, however, continue (especially in the post-9/11 America) to be the center of current political, cultural, and social debates.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first major ethnic group immigration exclusion policy in the U.S., provided a 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration.  The Act states that “in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory . . . Therefore, Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and until the expiration of ten years next after the passage of this act, the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or, having so come after the expiration of said ninety days, to remain within the United States.”

The Chinese Exclusion Act also required Chinese “non-laborers” in China who desired to enter the U.S. to obtain certification from the Chinese government that declared that they were qualified to immigrate.  This group, however, faced difficulty legally proving that they were not laborers because the exclusion act defined excludable as “skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining.”  By this “definition” very few Chinese could enter the country under the 1882 law.  The Chinese already in the U.S. also faced new requirements under the1882 act.  The Act states that if they left the United States, they needed to obtain re-entry certification. Congress also refused State and Federal courts the right to grant citizenship to Chinese resident aliens.  These courts, however, still had the legal power to deport Chinese from the U.S.  The exclusion act expired in 1892, but through the Geary Act, Congress extended it for 10 years. This extension (made permanent by a Congressional action in 1902) added restrictions by the requirement of the registration of every Chinese resident in the U.S. and the need for a certificate of residency to avoid legal action resulting in deportation.  The Chinese Exclusion Act was the law of the land until Congress finally repealed it in 1943.
The “Anti-Chinese Movement and Exclusion” theme section in the Chinese in California: 1850-1925 web site (item 65) contains (starting on page 6) the text of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act (called “Treaty Concerning the Immigration of Chinese”):